My new favorite kayaking hour has become 5:30 p.m. Although a life-long morning person, the twilight hours have lately come to enchant me on these sacred preserved waters.
Stillness surrounded us, as yet another ‘virgin kayaker’ and I glided out of the Turning Basin at Alexander, heading south on the shimmering D&R Canal.
On both sides, and reflected in curiously profound waters, the banks were still garbed in high summer’s uninterrupted green. Lush and bountiful ‘wine-dark’ greens negated hard trunks, melded single leaves. It was as though some mad decorator had strewn enormous sofa cushions all along our route.
At outset, there were few clouds — but that billowy forest did a superb and startling role as stand-ins. Here and there, the long red throats of trumpet flowers (hummingbirds’ favorites) punctuated the text of the forest. As clouds arrived, their reflections and those of canalside trees, reminded us first of Monet, then Constable.
The old maritime word, ‘williwaws’, came to mind, as gentlest breezes wrinkled first one side of the water, then the other.
Its color fascinated — various rich tones of grey, beyond pewter to black pearl. One or two curled gold leaves had somehow materialized, bobbing along like miniature watercraft, turning this way and that against the darkness.
Silence was everywhere. Time stopped.
Ever since Sandy scoured these historic banks, we have been deprived of many wildflowers and most turtles. Reparations brought in new stoniness, so far inhospitable to most blooms. Furious torrents swept all the slanted turtle logs downstream, (up-canal). Downed trunks have yet to reappear, making it hard for turtles to emerge from the depths, bask in the light.
Marsh mallow was our first floral gift. Because it was twilight, pink blooms, then later white ones, were “folding their tents like the Arabs.” Twined, from a distance, these towering hibiscus-like plants seemed more lily than mallow. I told my (enormously skillful already) kayaking companion, “The Lenni Lenape made a sweet out of their roots, which was white and sticky. We named marshmallows after those roots.”
Goldenthread vines wove in and out and over and under on the banks to our right. It seems to smother the plants that it covers. But late light on gold webs was stunning. Long ago, a woman from Jamaica told me, “We use this plant to treat prostate problems in my country.”
A few double kayaks of new paddlers gave us pause along this usually empty route. Their skills led them repeatedly toward the tangled banks, rather than up-canal or down-canal.
I was deeply aware, listening to their laughter, of the sounds we were not hearing — no wood thrushes, though evening. No kingfisher, rattling in his fishing dives. Not a goose yet — proving again that we are still in summer’s hands. Not even a mourning dove, although neither of us unfortunately ever needs to be reminded of mourning.
Only a few round tight golden spatterdock blooms remained among the lily pads. About the size of ping pong balls, these waterlily blooms will never enlarge. They seemed to be playing hide and seek in the shadows.
I had alerted my traveling companion to be on the lookout for shy cardinal flower. Fondest of deep shade, often solitary, these slender stalks hold tiny trumpet-y flowers the color of the bird for whom they are named. In sunlight, they can be visited by ravening hummingbirds.
She found the first stalk, and most thereafter, until my eyes adjusted to such minuscule splashes of crimson hidden in underbrush. It reminded me of snorkeling – when you don’t even realize there are tiny fish at first; and then, they are everywhere. We lost count of cardinal flower last night.
For all the high heat days we have had lately, the canal water was surprisingly cool. I always dip eager hands into that secret-keeping surface, ritually baptize my legs with her waters. A certain communion with the canal is essential.
This night was the most contemplative of all my shared ‘rides’. There is such a thing as ‘walking meditation.’ I think we were given ‘paddling meditation’. Occasional companionable talk, –of art and of camping, of books — drifted from her chartreuse craft to my cardinal-flower-hued one.
Two deer, mirrored in the canal, strolled down to sip. Being in their calm presence was either mirage or tapestry.
I had told her, “If we’re lucky, we might see the green heron at this hour.” Riding tall and proud as a skilled Lenni Lenape, her bright eyes missed nothing. My friend discovered this wild herald, high overhead, exactly matching leaves in late light. Silently, it coasted more than flew, from its observatory branch, angling down along the bank to our left. The lowering sun was taking on subtle flame hues itself, highlighting its coppery feathers.
We had been wondering what would be our turning point. The green heron was the deity we had awaited.